I love old jazz music. I have for a long time, going back to my middle school years. I am a little (OK, more than a little) jealous when today’s youth can listen to the music of their parents or grandparents and be completely socially acceptable. Cool, even. Trust me, this was not true in 1978, when I was a senior in high school That was the year I spent several months immersed in a Woody Herman LP that was a re-issue of some of his 1940s stuff.
I don’t know how most of you listen to music, but when I get something new, it has long been my habit to listen to it over and over and over until it becomes embedded in my memory banks and joins the never-ending succession of songs that is perpetually playing in my mind. In case you are curious, this is not something that helps my concentration skills in everyday life.
I have been re-living that experience this summer, after finding a Woody Herman CD at Half Price Books and adding it into my iPod. It is amazing to me the way music can transport someone back to a place and time that is long past. As I drive (which is where most of my music listening takes place) and listen to certain songs from this Woody Herman CD, it is once again the late spring and summer of 1978. I am finished with high school, and my ’67 Ford Galaxie convertible is in the paint shop on the way to becoming a totally cool ride, and I am immersed in 1940s Woody Herman for the first time.
The Woody Herman band had quite a run in the second half of the 1940s. It was actually two bands. The First Herd, as it is called, was a hit beginning in 1945 until Woody disbanded a year later in an effort to help his wife quit a pill addiction. The Second Herd was formed in 1947 and it too put out some top-notch jazz, though by then the big bands were in a terminal decline, and it never reached the First Herd’s level of popularity or financial success.
Herman played clarinet, but was never in the same league as a player with the two who set the standard for that instrument in that era, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. But Herman’s thing was the band itself rather than his own playing or singing: both of these bands were groups full of postwar enthusiasm, and featuring progressive (for the time) arrangements that are still a delight all these decades later.
For most people, jazz is kind of like wine – there is so much out there, it is hard to know where to start. It is not much help to tell someone “well, just find what you like and listen to that” because there are so many places to jump in. If you like smooth, mellow rainy afternoon kind of jazz, Woody Herman is not for you. If we were going to compare him to one of the more familiar rock genres, Herman was kind of like the heavy metal of his era. The Herman Herds were loud and powerful, but unlike the Stan Kenton groups of the same period, could swing and swing hard. Listen to his 1945 Columbia recording of Caladonia, and you will see what I mean. This was a band with power enough to give the late 1940s recording technology a run for it’s money, even given Columbia Records’ fantastic recording studio of those years..
But the Herman band was not a one-trick pony, and could also pull off a slow, smoldering blues like Blue Flame (I find the 1946 Columbia version much better than the 1939 Decca recording) or a lush, harmonically complex ballad like Early Autumn (or Summer Sequence Part IV, from which it was adapted.). These bands were loaded with talent, like trumpets Sonny Berman and Pete Candoli, trombonist Wild Bill Harris, and the saxophones of Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and a young Stan Getz. This 1947 sax section was immortalized in the recording of Four Brothers, that should be on everyone’s playlist. Seriously, if you choose just one link to listen to, make it this last one. [Note: if you are on a mobile device, you may need to go to the bottom and choose the full desktop site in order for these links to work.]
The darker side to the Herman groups of those years was the high incidence of drug use, particularly heroin. In fairness, that plague was sweeping through the jazz community with a vengeance in the late ’40s. Herman later joked that when he went to his wife’s first AA meeting, the rest of his band was there too. It is sad to think about the way substance abuse has decimated so many musicians of every age from Bix Biederbecke in the 1920s through present day talents like Amy Winehouse.
Woody Herman suffered a heartbreak of another kind, when bad management resulted in monstrous tax debts that pretty much forced him to tour and record for the rest of his life. In the 1960s and 70s, he became a sort of mentor to lots of up and coming young musicians. Unfortunately, he was never able to recreate the financial and critical success that he enjoyed in the immediate postwar years.
Anyway, my recent re-immersion into Woody Herman led me to look into what else is available from that late ’40s band that captured my imagination, both all those years ago and again now. I have discovered a 10 CD set that is probably pretty comprehensive. Yes, those jazzmen didn’t make much money from their recordings in those pre-album days, and tended to churn out new releases on those brittle 78 rpm discs in great numbers.
I am not going to order it, at least not yet. Given the obsessive way that I approach music, a 10 CD collection will pull me into a rabbit hole that I should probably avoid. Then again, it (with some earbuds or wireless headphones) could get me through an awful lot of the home improvement projects that the Mrs. has penciled into my fall calendar. And being eighteen again for a few weeks couldn’t hurt either.